Sunday, January 1, 2012

New: New Speedway Boogie

Grateful Dead: New Speedway Boogie


First of all, let me wish all of our readers a very happy new year.

To start our “New” theme, I wanted to share a song by the Grateful Dead. So, I had to decide whether to post New Minglewood Blues, New, New Minglewood Blues, or All New Minglewood Blues. I could even have gone with an obscure version of the song that is not the Dead at all, called Even Newer Minglewood Blues. I decided to avoid the problem by going with New Speedway Boogie instead.

Now, some of you have probably realized that the picture above is not the Grateful Dead at all, but rather the Rolling Stones. In preparing this post, I finally learned, after all these years, what New Speedway Boogie is about. The free concert at the Altamont Speedway in 1969 was originally conceived as a sort of Woodstock west. The show was headlined by the Rolling Stones, and the Grateful Dead were supposed to be in the line-up, but they decided not to do the show. Where Woodstock is remembered as an outporing of peace and love, Altamont is notorious for the violence that marred the occasion, even resulting in one death. It’s hard to say what accounted for the difference between the two shows. At Altamont, the presence of the Hell’s Angels is frequently cited as the cause of the violence, but the Angels had peacefully provided security at Grateful Dead shows for some time at that point. Whatever the case, Altamont is remembered as the concert shown in the documentary Gimme Shelter, and is sometimes regarded as a marker for the end of the hippie era.

New Speedway Boogie was written in response to the events at Altamont, and the Grateful Dead included the song for about nine months afterwards. The lyrics are typically cryptic, and the band probably assumed that their audiences would know the reference. But the Dead dropped the song from their set lists, possibly because they felt that it was too topical and becoming irrelevant. It would be almost twenty years before the band started playing New Speedway Boogie in their shows again. I heard the song when it was released on Workingman’s Dead in 1970. I was ten years old, so I hope I can be forgiven for not understanding what the song referred to.

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